During the recent election campaign I was out in Leicester South in a ward near the university. Some voters came across to apologise for their mistake in voting Liberal Democrat and to pledged their support for Labour. But it was clear that some of the university voters who had gone Liberal Democrat were now disillusioned and moving to the Greens. Good news for us tactically, but possibly also a portent for the future as the Liberal Democrat implosion gathers pace.
Over the decades, my mantra has been that the Liberal Democrats are not a political party in any conventional sense, but a franchise operation. When they hit hard times the whole operation can fall apart very quickly. We are seeing that nationally and we may well soon see that in a number of localities.
They do not have the basic glue that holds together the Conservative and Labour parties. Accordingly, we may well see not only their voters deserting them, but also their members and activists. Many will come to us, and are already doing so, but there is a strong possibility, especially in university towns, that many in their activist base will shift across to the Greens, as in Brighton.
Local parties need to be alert to this. They must not make the mistake that so many made in the past with the Liberal Democrats of letting them gain momentum – securing control in one ward and building on that outwards into other wards until they get a critical mass on the council and are then able to erode parliamentary majorities. The Greens have, after all, already achieved this in Brighton.
It is not just local party officers and activists who need to be on the ball, but regional offices must also be particularly alert to any eruption of Green activity and saturate the area with campaigning and material in order to make the Greens’ real agenda known. Voters should be able to make an informed decision about whether they really want to give up their cars, their holidays, jobs in industry or their ability to get to work.
We also have to understand the core appeal of the Greens. My researcher Linda Smith, who beat a sitting Green councillor in Hackney, found that for many of their young professional voters it was less a political choice to vote Green and more a lifestyle choice. They were not dependent on council services and did not identify with Labour and its affinity with the poorer residents of the borough, but by voting Green they could still appear ‘progressive’ among their dinner party set. This cult of non-politics and anti-politics is harder to root out than a conventional political choice.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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